Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek: Into Dumbness

I saw the new Star Trek movie this weekend with The Wife, and feel that I should add my 2¢ worth to the ongoing conversation about it. I will say that I didn't hate it, but I can't recall the last time a movie pissed me off so much. Probably the original Mission Impossible when they made Phelps the bad guy. This ranks up there with that. In the hierarchy of Trek films, I rank it on par with Generations, another film that should've been better but spun out of control with nonsensical plot contortions and an over-inflated sense of self-importance. That puts it ahead of the abyssmal Nemesis and Insurrection, for what it's worth.

If you don't want spoilers, then stop reading here, because everything in this film has been so thoroughly telegraphed in advance by the filmmakers that even a half-blind monkey that's never seen a single second of Star Trek in any incarnation will figure out what's coming. First and foremost, the movie fails utterly by bringing in Khan Noonien Singh as the villain. Star Trek II is still universally hailed as the gold standard for all Star Trek films, and the high-stakes, to-the-death battle between Kirk and Khan is a huge part of that. Ricardo Montalban's portrayal of Khan--both in the original "Space Seed" episode of the series and in the film--is transcendent and iconic. The fact that the "big reveal" of Khan as the bad guy halfway through Star Trek: Into Darkness depends entirely on actor Benedict Cumberbatch 1) looking nothing like Ricardo Montalban in any way, shape or form, 2) being neither Hispanic, as Montalban was, nor northern Indian Sikh, as Khan was, or 3) neither speaking nor acting like the character, you know there are some serious problems with the script. Despite taking great pains to cast actors who vaguely resemble their older counterparts for the reboot, it seems this time that director J.J. Abrams took great pains to cast an actor as ethnically unlike the older predecessor simply to preserve his "GOTCHA!" moment, which never was a gotcha moment at all. Had Abrams seriously considered casting a Latino actor or Indian or Pakistani for the role, fans would view that as defacto confirmation that Khan was the villain. As it was, most people still thought Cumberbatch was playing Khan, only they were somewhat puzzled, in a "how do they explain this?" way.

For a film series so desperately trying to strike out in a new direction and establish its own identity, Into Darkness went out of its way to trade heavily on emotional payoffs based on earlier Trek films. It shamelessly apes or invokes Star Trek II, III and VI, but not as homage. Rather, it's ham-fisted manipulation, basically telling the audience, "See, this was really poignant and emotional 20 years ago, so you have to react the way we want you to. Not only are we reminding you how Spock died saving everyone and getting you all weepy at the memory, Captain Kirk is doing THE EXACT SAME THING THIS TIME! How awesome is that? And in case you are so stupid as to not pick up on the parallels, we're going to quote the exact same lines from Star Trek II and beat you over the head with them." From the opening volcano sequence in which Mr. Spock says "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" (in a rather forced delivery, I thought) I had a sinking feeling. Subtlety was not part of this film's bag of tricks. But when the U.S.S. Enterprise is hurtling to its doom unless Kirk can brave lethal amounts of radiation to restore power to the ship's systems, the film becomes a parody of itself. As Kirk dies (yes, he dies) I grew more and more uncomfortable. When Spock cries (cries!?) I grew offended at the blatant manipulation on display. But when Spock unleashes an embarrassing echo of Krik's much-referenced scream of "KHAAAAAN!", I threw up my arms in disgust and damn near walked out. This is not good writing. It's cheap and lazy. The original movie earned its brutal emotional payoff the hard way, building on the history of the original TV series episode and an intense character arc running throughout The Wrath of Khan. That movie brought a lot of new material to the table as well: Kirk's old love, Carol Marcus, their son, David, the Genesis Device, fear of aging, emotional isolation... I mean, nothing like that movie had ever come to Star Trek before, and it was a heady experience. Into Darkness manages none of that. It introduces Carol Marcus (inexplicably British in this altered timeline) but gives her absolutely nothing to do other than look good in her underwear. Cumberbatch's Khan is particularly uninteresting as a villain. He's bent on revenge, mostly because Starfleet won't defrost his cryogenically frozen followers. There's no sympathetic villain here--in II, Khan had a very good point, in that Kirk never bothered to check up on the supermen he'd marooned on Ceti Alpha V, so that when that garden world turned into a hell hole, Khan was very much justified in nursing a homicidal grudge. Here, he's just kind of pissy for a homicical maniac. To make matters worse, Khan doesn't really give a shit about Kirk one way or another, although the film tries desperately to make this a Kirk-Khan grudge match, and failing that, a Spock-Khan grudge match. At which point the film copies the flying-car-chase scene from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, which in turn was copied from the flying-car-chase scene from The Fifth Element--neither of which particularly impressed me to begin with. The film can't draw on the historical baggage from "The Space Seed" because this film preempts those events. When Cumberbatch first hisses his name, "I am Khan!" it's supposed to be an "Oh shit!" moment, but I didn't see anyone in the audience give a shit. Kirk and Spock certainly didn't. Had he said, in a haughty, regal manner "I am Khan Noonien Singh, master of all I survey" or somesuch, that would've come close to being in character. Alas, they couldn't even get that right.

Oh, and Kirk comes back to life at the end. Yeah. See, he dies of radiation poisoning, but early in the film they establish that Khan's blood cures cancer. And later, Dr. McCoy draws some of Khan's blood and instead of running tests or putting it in storage, decides to inject it into a dead tribble he just happens to have lying around. To see what happens, I guess, because doctors are always injecting tissue cultures into dead things they find. And the tribble comes back to life (at which point I was hoping for a brain-eating zombie tribble, because that would at least be interesting and follow existing tropes) so naturally, injecting Khan's blood into Kirk will miraculously save the captain. But it creates a nonsensical need to keep Khan alive, because Kirk will die without a hot-blooded Khan injection (nevermind that they have 72 other genetic supermen in suspended animation they could pull a blood sample from. Duh). I still want killer, zombie tribbles though.

There's a lot they didn't get right in this film. There's a throwaway battle on the Klingon homeworld, random elements of false jeopardy and a conspiracy to start a war that's straight out of The Undiscovered Country. In short, it's a mess. Abrams tipped his hand when people online complained about the Enterprise hiding underwater in the trailers. The Enterprise, being a whopping huge aerodynamically unsound space ship, can't land on a planet. Yet Abrams responded "It's a cool visual. If you're going to get upset about that, then my movie's not for you." Truer words, etc. This is a director who has never overly concerned himself with logic or continuity in his projects. Abrams famously planned to turn Lex Luthor into a king-fu-fighting Kryptonian sleeper agent in his proposed Superman relaunch. To quote from the Turkey City Lexicon the man isn't interested in telling stories, he's interested in eyeball kicks. String enough dazzling eyeball kicks together and you've got a movie and/or TV show. Dazzle the audience enough and they won't notice you've presented them with a house of cards that has no foundation or substance. But sooner or later it all comes crashing down. This happened with Alias and it happened with LOST. Super 8 and Cloverfield? Ditto. Strong, glossy opening acts that begin to crumble and fall apart when anything resembling resolution is called for. Hell, in one of Abrams' very first projects, the pseudo time travel movie Forever Young, the entire finale was one excruciatingly idiotic crash and burn. This is what he does.

And can someone explain to me why Damon Lindelof is still getting these high-profile writing jobs in Hollywood? Damon, listen, a word of advice. I heard your interview on NPR where you talk about how your father tore out the back pages of your Encyclopedia Brown books, freeing you from the tyranny of established endings. Look, man, that wasn't your father teaching you about the nature of creative insight. What he did is called asshole parenting. Your father pulled a dick move on you, Damon, and judging from your unwillingness to write scripts that reach coherent and logical conclusions, he really messed with your head. I strongly recommend counseling, because seriously, the general movie going public would dearly love for you to stop inflicting your childhood psychological trauma on us. Thanks.

So, was there anything good about this film? Well, yes, believe it or not. The opening sequence with the primitive alien tribe and the erupting volcano was a great deal of fun and echoed episodes of the classic series, despite the stupidity of the Enterprise being underwater and a pointless chase scene. I really, really liked those aliens, and felt more thought went into them than almost any other element of the film. The action sequences are slick and well-done. There are a lot of them, and they'll generally dazzle you enough so that you don't have to think too much about what's going on with the plot. Zoë Saldaña was fantastic as Lt. Uhura, getting a lot more or consequence to do than Nichelle Nichols ever did. Does she a better Uhura? No, but her Uhura is better, if that makes sense. Likewise, Karl Urban does such a good job of channeling DeForest Kelly that it borders on scary. It's a shame that even though he has a bit more to do in this film than the previous one, he's still underutilized. Trek works best when Kirk, Spock and McCoy interact to make a id-ego-superego analog, and thus far the revamped Star Trek doesn't care about that, only the Kirk-Spock dynamic matters, to the exclusion of McCoy.

I think that's the biggest problem with the revamped series as a whole. Abrams is not shy about telling interviewers he was never a Star Trek fan, and I think that very much remains true. He is not a fan. He is a fan of his version but remains indifferent to everything else. This is why it so often descends into self-parody or strikes tone-deaf notes with disturbing frequency: Neither Abrams nor his writers really care about Star Trek or the characters. I suspect there's a degree of contempt at work as well, and that's problematic.

I viewed the 2009 relaunch film as a decent popcorn movie that wasn't great (what were those people smoking who clamored for it to get an Oscar nomination?) but a decent reset to the franchise that acknowledged what had come before without dismissing it or being terribly condescending. But I didn't want Abrams associated with the next film. After Into Darkness bore my concerns out, I have to say I'm very happy he's leaving Star Trek to take over Star Wars (not that I think he'll do a good job there, but at least his sloppy storytelling and love of eyeball kicks will fit in with the precedent Lucas set with the prequels. It'll be a seamless transition, I'm sure). Who will replace Abrams at the helm of Star Trek then? The franchise is pulling in huge amounts at the box office, so there's no doubt Paramount will want to have another film out around 2016-17 or so, and want to keep the action-oriented approach Abrams established. That's fine, but I'd like my Trek to be a little smarter. Brad Bird's a great director who excels at character work, so he'd be a top choice for me. While I've started seeing flaws in his work, Christopher Nolan has shown the ability to weave mind-twisting plot challenges into big action pieces. And then there's Peter Weir, whose Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is, in my opinion, one of the very best Star Trek movies of the past 25 years, even though it obviously has no direct connection with Star Trek. Any of those directors would instill me with a great deal of confidence in the direction of the franchise going forward. Someone like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich... well, we'll always have reruns.

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  1. Anonymous5:37 PM

    Excellent assessment. I am leery of watching this movie, as it seems like it doesn't understand what makes the original "Star Trek" so great to watch. And casting a non-ethnic person as Khan Noonien Singh is ludicrous, as you pointed out.

  2. Anonymous7:30 AM


  3. Anonymous9:08 AM

    What you idiots don't realize is that this is a different timeline. Get over the criticism and hate for this film since none of you know what reimaging means.

    1. I don't think the criticism has anything to do with whether it is a reimagining or not. What is at issue is the fact that this movie isn't really all that good due to Abrams's stylistic flaws as a director and Lindelof's stylistic flaws as a screenwriter.

    2. Indeed, James. Those flaws are readily apparent in even a cursory examination of their respective work.

    3. Anonymous12:18 PM

      So are you saying that if someone had stopped the JFK assassination I would be Chinese?

    4. Anonymous10:56 AM

      Abrams did HAVE an entire universe to work with so why did he REPEAT everything down to an f-ing hand gesture on a wall? Your boring "different universe" theory has completely broken down now. It cannot be used to support this franchise anymore, so just stop.

      So everyone here isn't an idiot for pointing out what you missed.

    5. I know what reimagining means, and it doesn't mean excusing bad writing. Even in a different timeline, logic and reason are fundamental aspects of good storytelling.

      If a plot point would have been stupid in the original timeline (i.e., a starship designed to operate in zero gravity and the vacuum of space, where all the pressures are going outward from the ship, is not going to survive long under the incredible pressures of the sea) is still going to be stupid in a different timeline.

      Calling it a different timeline only addresses issues of continuity; none of the author's concerns about the move had anything to do with continuity.

  4. Anonymous9:48 AM

    so an alternative timeline changes the genetic nature of an individual from Mexican (whatever Montalban was) to Caucasian (Cumberbatch)?

    also that makes sense then why the Enterprise which was never designed to fly in an atmosphere - let alone sit on the ocean bed under the sea like a submarine. structurally the ship was never designed for that - off snaps the nacelles! Oops! There is clear Star Trek history which states that the Enterprise was built in sections and assembled in low earth orbit - not on the ground like a skyscraper. JJ's minions have obviously not done their homework. USS Voyager on the other hand was designed for planetary landing hence its shape and hence why it flew through a planets atmosphere.

    the physics in this film dont make sense (well not the star trek physics we come to know!). How can the Enterprise in Earth/moon orbit just drop like a stone to Earth? It might do eventually in a few decades but in the space of a few minutes? Eh?

    the alternative timeline also explains why when someone (kirk) dies and is clearly dead can be resurrected thanks to Kahn's blood and suffer no brain damage? so finding the cure to everlasting life and they end up sticking Kahn back in a cryo tube?

    also why at the end when there is a raging battle in Earth's orbit between two Federation starships there isn't a single ship from Earth (or from the orbiting space platform which had loads at the start?) to work out 'hey why are these two starfleet ships engaged in battle?'. Also why dosent Starfleet try hailing both ships to see what the heck is going on? Earth has no defenses despite Admiral Marcus stating all doom and gloom and even war with the Klingon Empire earlier in the film? So why is Earth left soo unprotected? yes must be the alternative timeline again :-)

    Not only does the film copy direct scenes from Wrath of Kahn it also directly copies scenes from Nemeis (bad ship overtakes and fires on Enterprise whilst it flees towards Federation space). Also the scene where they space jump across into a hatch didn't Data do that in Nemesis to board the baddie Romulan ship? Hmmmmm interesting parallels here.

    As much as I am a huge Trekkie of 30 years including the 2009 reboot this review does raise some interesting points (as my ear's burn and Im hearing traitor from thousands of Trekkies!). Sorry to admit it but this film is really going to divide Trekkies! A great film, very enjoyable but really? did they have to do Kahn again and steal iconic scenes from the Wrath of Kahn? As much as the other films were not deemed as successfully financial as this film they did have a huge amount of originality about them which this film clearly lacks. Great acting though and I have never ever seen such a talented young set of actors who are well balanced and fully portray the original characters. This is something I do give huge praise to JJ and his minions! Fantastic job!

    The reviewer has accurately summed up JJ's interpretation of Trek. In a recent interview on a documentary programme he clearly hinted and stated that its Trek as the way he sees it! and this surmised to his version of Wrath of Kahn. Sighs!

    Its a shame these two films couldn't now be turned into a new series and to explore this within a 5 year format to fit in with the 5 year mission. clearly Paramount has no intention of this - costs aside. The days are gone for creating television for pure entertainment and production value and Paramount and other studios are far more agressive in viewing figures and getting the most bang for buck out of a film. I doub't we will ever see a series as awesome as the Next Generation again where magic was the key ingredient.

  5. I fear your reading comprehension is sorely lacking, therefore I will type slowly:

    Awful writing is universal, regardless of timeline. Someone can shout "What you idiots don't realize is that PROMETHEUS was a prequel to Alien!" all they want, but that doesn't make that movie any less nonsensical, either.

  6. io9 brings up some of the same issues I had, but they've changed the settings on their snark from "stun" to "kill."

    1. Anonymous10:28 PM

      ;-) or in Stargate terms, they've used the third shot on the Zat gun.
      I just read it and couldn't stop laughing. Right on the money!

  7. Anonymous9:49 PM

    I really liked the first film. I accepted and felt that they had come up with a clever twist to explain the alternate timeline and not re-writing Trek as we know it. I was so excited for this new film only to be left feeling WTF am I watching as I sat there in the theater. I have to say it has been kind of hard for me to pinpoint the things that bothered me and you have hit on so many things and put into words the things I could not. The movie is a great well acted and dazzling. The story I felt was seriously lacking and just borrowing or stealing from past Trek in hopes that true fans would feel included. Instead I felt more like they were mocking Prime Trek and to be honest I felt slightly insulted. I am also ready for the pitchforks but this Cumberbatch guy was a bit of a wet blanket for Kahn. I do not see why they say he steals the movie. He did make a good baddie but it just should not have been Khan.

  8. Cumberbatch would've made a better Gary Mitchell, if they wanted to go back and mine Old Trek storylines.

  9. Anonymous10:11 PM

    Trekk 2009 and what I hear and read of STID reminds me way to much of the Stargate SG-1 episode "200"...where they replaced the current characters/actors with "younger and edgier" versions. Except SG-1 was not serious about it.
    That was half the fun with often did not take itself seriously, and the other half was some DARN GOOD storytelling. Like what Trek so sorely needs these days.

  10. I love Trekker's, trekkies, Star Wars, GL haters, Co-players and just in general sci-fi lovers the world over. We get so passionate about our movies and tv series and the worlds they inspire us with. I have seen every point of view, review, hate blogs and OMG the best movie ever post; EVERYWHERE!!!11

    We are all over the place with this movie. And I haven't seen it because it hasn't come out in Afghanistan yet \o/ wtf. But really folks go see it and support Star Trek. And yes I think Cumberbatch would have made a great Gary Mitchell or maybe even a Charlie X. (OMG not another Q/Borg movie)! LoL

  11. I'll forgo the 3D/IMAX "Kablooey!" experience and wait for it to come on basic cable, with commercial interruptions.

    And to all you Star Wars fans, you've met Jar Jar, now meet JJ. Good luck.

    Excellent review/rant by the way. Ten thumbs up!

  12. kadajawi6:27 AM

    I think JJ will do a great job on Star Wars. He IS a fan of that franchise (I love it too), and his style suits Star Wars much more than it does to Star Trek.

    The review is (probably) spot on, haven't seen the movie because I don't want to support the film makers. What I do wonder is why there is no hate for Orci and Kurtzman. They are the main writers, aren't they? And they did just as lousy a job with Transformers 1 and 2. I think that is the main weakness. Had JJ been given a well written script there's not so much he could have done to ruin it.